bridging the gap: from youth ministry to adult discipleship

It was a privilege to present a workshop at the Australian Catholic Youth Ministry Convention 2018, held in the Diocese of Parramatta this past weekend. It was inspiring to be with youth ministers and leaders who are shaping the Church through their witness and initiative, from all sectors of the Church in Australia. Below is a summary of the workshop shared and I hope it’s of interest and encouragement in the ongoing work of renewal as we anticipate next month’s Synod on Youth.

This ACYMCworkshop will extend the theme of ‘missionary discipleship’ to consider how youth ministry can support young people to move and grow from participation in youth ministry to exercise their discipleship as adults in broader parish and community life. If youth ministry gathers for the purpose of sending out, how can our ministries best prepare young people for that future? One of the claims of this workshop is that if we can identify the issues of our moment, and we know the destination at which we want to arrive, then this will shape the steps we can take to get there. If our purpose is sending young people out into mission, into the full life of the Church and world, then how does our youth ministry best prepare them for that future?

The Discipleship Dilemma

As Pope Francis encourages, it is important to begin with a frank assessment of where we are as Church because “realities are more important than ideas” (EG 231-233; LS 110, 201). We cannot grow by holding the door closed against reality. A renewed future begins on the basis of the present. When we reflect on how best to lead young people into adult discipleship, we could reasonably ask how well our entire Church leads and makes disciples of all its members.

We know that the Church is called by God to work towards the transformation of the world so that it reflects more and more of God’s Kingdom or God’s reign. This Kingdom comes about when people encounter Jesus, surrender, and make the decision to follow – when they become his disciples and go out to transform the world.  However, if this is the purpose of the Church, bringing about the Kingdom and making and forming disciples, we have to admit that we are not bearing the fruit we would like to see. More and more of our people, both young and old, continue to disengage from the Church, and we acknowledge the confronting reality that in the current climate some will question if the Church has anything worthwhile to say or be less inclined to be explicit in their faith. Another challenge presents itself in our parishes. If we were to measure how many of the hundreds who receive the sacraments in our local parishes each year, pass through our sacramental life in initiation or from week to week, and emerge on the other side as missionary disciples, the result would be less than ideal. There is something amiss. Where is the fruit?

The reasons for our decline have become clearer over time. At heart, we have a discipleship dilemma. When it comes to a personal and active relationship with Jesus Christ, many Catholic communities have taken a pastoral approach that assumes the sacraments will simply ‘take care of it’ and that is simply not true. We have neglected our duty to awaken in each person that active and personal faith, that fertile soil, in which the grace of the sacraments can actually take root and bear fruit. To make the point, “baptisms, confessions, weddings, funerals, daily devotions, anointing, and adoration. It’s all good stuff, it’s how some Catholics grow spiritually. For others, it’s what they do instead of grow . . . For certain, the sacraments give us grace to put us in right relationship to God and his life in our soul, nourishing and strengthening us for our discipleship walk. But they’re not mean to replace it’”.[1] This is not to discount the centrality of the sacraments or to deny the place that devotions have in the Catholic life. But it is to say that people can be ‘sacramentalised’ without being evangelised. It is entirely possible to undertake a routine of religious custom and practice without a personal and responsive relationship to Jesus Christ.

The sacraments do indeed give us the capacity to believe – the virtue of faith – but without a personal ‘yes’ – an act of faith – it remains a ‘bound’ sacrament. Like a car full of fuel, if we never turn the key or press the accelerator, we do not move forwards and we are not changed. Our personal ‘yes’ is the spark which enables grace to bear real fruit in our lives. Writing of youth, John Paul II recognised this same dilemma, “A certain number of children baptised in infancy come for catechesis in the parish without receiving any other initiation into the faith and still without any explicit personal attachment to Jesus Christ; they only have the capacity to believe placed within them by Baptism and the presence of the Holy Spirit.”[2] We know that children and youth who have no explicit personal attachment to Jesus are likely to grow up to be adults with no personal attachment to Jesus, unless that relationship is introduced into their life through a process of evangelisation.

Our Catholic tradition affirms this very point – that the sacraments do not replace personal discipleship. Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium affirms that the sacraments presume a living faith amidst its people.[3] The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us explicitly, “The sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church: it must be preceded by evangelisation, faith, and conversion”.[4] The Second Vatican Council and the Catechism affirm the Eucharist as “the source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324). When there is no Christian life, no trace or intention of Christian living, then in fact the Eucharist can be neither source nor summit of anything. Outside of the context of discipleship, the Eucharist can be reduced to an object of piety or mere consumption rather than a relationship that invites a Jesus-shaped life. Finally, Jesus himself gives us a Great Commission “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, [and then] baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). We could say that the mission of the Church is not sacraments but disciples which the sacraments nourish. Unless people become disciples, the grace of the sacraments bears little fruit.

It is important to recognise that the young people in our care are already being shaped and formed by this culture of sacramental routine, marked by a lack of fruit and the gentle decline in living faith. To render this concrete, take the typical experience of a Church-attending youth. They might intuit from the pews that parish participation is declining (in fact, the total percentage of Mass attendance nears single digits across the country) and will gain a quick sense that very few of their peers attend Eucharist on any given weekend (about 5% of all aged 20-34 in fact).[5] They would know too well that few of their peers’ families are engaging with the Church, and they may not witness many or any new people coming into the Church at Easter (perhaps a handful each year, while dozens more walk out the back door at the same time). They might recognise that while many receive the sacraments they are not seeing the fruit of a change in lives, that there is something missing and church attendance doesn’t seem to make a great difference to people’s lives. They may hear a little about the Church, history, or even morality, but they may not hear much about Jesus or hear the story of Jesus’ life shared clearly (when preaching is poor or misaligned). They may never have witnessed an adult actually speak about how Jesus has changed their life or heard conversations among adults about Jesus (even though a culture of testimony lies at the heart of evangelisation, for consumer churches have preferences while missionary churches have stories of how Jesus has changed their life).

These are some of the basic experiences that young people may encounter in our faith communities. The risk is unless we are casting in our youth ministries an alternative vision for what adult discipleship looks like, our young people may not receive any other image of adult life in the Church and therefore be given little sense of a positive future. We have a deep sense that we are called to do more than lead young people into adult communities which show little life in themselves, repeat the outcomes or trends of decline we have experienced in past generations of Catholics in Australia.

If our adult community and the cultures of our parish communities have forgotten what ‘normal’ looks like, it is the prophetic role of youth ministry to recover a new norm by equipping young people to move from a faith that can be customary, inherited or barren to a faith which is intentional (not routine), personal (not merely the faith of my family but a faith truly my own), and fruitful (there are signs of concrete change in our life for discipleship is not an invisible phenomenon, it shows up in the pigment of our life). In looking at change from one culture to another, we note that it is not the cultural norm in Catholicism to even talk about Jesus, let alone his fruit or work in our life, and those who do are viewed as Protestant or a spiritual pretender.[6] We have forgotten what ‘normal’ looks like. Youth ministry can play a part in the gradual transformation of our Church culture, to place again a full and living discipleship to Jesus before young people, as the heart of what we do and who we are as Catholics.

We can consider the radical difference that youth ministry can make to the Church in this way – via the analogy of what makes a good school. We know that a lack of academic opportunity is passed on or transmitted from generation to generation and, as such, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds often do not perform as well as they could. However, some education systems (e.g. those in Shanghai and Korea but sadly not Australia) are able to lift these students well beyond their statistical likelihood of poor academic performance, enabling these young people to perform and excel at their full potential. Quite simply, good schools and teachers make a difference to the capacities and lives of their students. They can break the cycle of ignorance and disadvantage. In a similar way, we know that ignorance of the faith is passed on or transmitted from generation to generation, and that many of our people start their journey in the Church ‘disadvantaged’ by low religious literacy and low or no commitment to practice, including little enthusiasm for sacrificial discipleship or evangelisation of others. The aim of good parishes, schools and youth ministries is to lift people out of this religious rut and support them to grow in faith and discipleship above and beyond what their background might have equipped them for. If our communities are not equipping our young people for living discipleship, then perhaps it is our ministry that can make that difference. I wanted to start on the note of realism, with recognition of what we are sending our young people into, and a note of possibility of what youth ministry can do within the wider life of the Church and within a Catholic culture desperately in need of renewal.

Youth Ministry

Having named the discipleship dilemma in our wider Church, which impacts upon the future of young people in faith, we now turn to focus on the reality of youth ministry itself. What is the status quo or state of play in youth ministry today?

Some of the significant dilemmas we are confronting include a ‘drop off’ after a time in parish groups and during senior high school among youth. For young adults, the decline in participation can set in during the post-school years, in the years of university or the first years of work. We sense that many of those aged between 25-35 years are being lost to the Church’s life, and other young adults are left hungry and even look back to youth ministry to serve their needs after the age of 30. These real experiences expose a gap and need in our approach to youth ministry, with many asking, ‘to whom shall we go?’ As it stands, we see young adults graduate from youth groups, a small number emerge as spiritual entrepreneurs who have learned to fend for themselves, but many more become ‘lost’ or drifters within the life of the Church, and a silent majority of young adults, I fear, slip into the routine culture of the crowd or disappear from the life of the Church altogether. Young people will continue to leave the scene as groups dwindle and their social support fades in the Church, or they will ‘hang on’ to their youth experience for dear life and risk a sort of extended adolescence well into their thirties with the crisis of vocation that can accompany being lost. If people are feeling lost in their thirties, it is saying something about how we are or are not preparing young people in youth ministry for a lasting life of faith.

The Causes of Decline

What is it about youth ministries that can lead to the disengaged, unchurched and the lost? We have an opportunity to make a real difference with those we do encounter but we do not always quite hit the mark. Some of the limited outcomes we see in youth ministry can be related to the purpose for which they exist. Take these four examples, keeping in view that a problem well recognised is a problem half solved.

The social but not spiritual group. There will be youth groups that exist for their own social value and are perhaps more an exercise in demography rather than discipleship. The parish decides it is good to have a youth group or a school a new youth team of sorts, so they establish one and the community feels better for it because we are ‘doing something for youth’. In short, the group exists for its own sake rather than for others. It will inevitably become insular, cliquey and decline, rather than outreach and grow, operating from a consumption model (‘this group is about me’) rather than of outreach and apostolic intent. It can often be marked by a sense that if the group gets any larger they will lose their intimate sense of community. The members do not intentionally reject ‘new’ people, but their present relationships are so intimate that any newcomer can find it difficult to break into the group. Especially when small, these social groups can stunt personal growth rather than enable it, especially if a group is populated with young people with nowhere else to go. Of course, the Church is there for all people, most especially the poor in spirit and circumstance, but if youth groups or ministries are not as broad and refective as the surrounding community, it can serve as a refuge from the world rather than a launching pad for faith in the world.

Youth groups as a retention strategy. Sometimes groups can be formed or used as a remedy for the declining participation that takes place after the sacraments of initiation. After all, who doesn’t want to ‘keep the kids in church’. However, such group can have short futures as they will tend to focus on behaviour modification (turning up to Mass or staying in Church) rather than discipleship. What they do not realise is that when people become disciples – encounter Jesus, surrender their life to him, and make the decision to follow – they will go to Mass for the rest of their lives. We want people to fall in love, not merely fall in line. If a group is simply about retaining members, then youth leaders will need to constantly come up with new and gimmicky ideas to retain the current membership and ‘get them to Mass’ but never address the deeper ‘why’ that might sustain them for a lifetime of faith. Groups that are established or see themselves merely as a retention strategy aim for the short-term but are unable to take the longer view with the usual outcomes of steady decline as the novelties and techniques wear thin.

Youth ministry as catechesis. Another reality for youth ministry can be an exclusive focus on catechesis, on teaching young people the facts about Catholicism and learning content, even when young people may not have a relationship with Jesus (i.e. have not even been evangelised). When we think about the word ‘catechesis’ itself (κατήχησις) as it is found in the Gospel of Luke 1:4, 1 Corinthians 14:19 and Galatians 6:6 it means ‘to sound out’ or to ‘echo the teaching’. It is like standing at the entrance of a cave and speaking out and hearing a voice coming back. When we catechise young people, we are speaking into their lives. We are giving them faith and knowledge, and what we seek is for that faith and knowledge to resound back, echo back upon its reception. However, the only way we can hear an echo is if there is a cave, if there is a space to speak into. If we were to run out and shout at a brick wall, we are not going to hear an echo as there is no space to absorb and reverberate what is being shared. So, we need to bring people to a living and transformative encounter with Jesus first, to create space within them for the Gospel, before we can teach or learning can take place. It has been pointed out that in the history of our Church, we have so often confused indifference with ignorance. People often do not care, have no space for the Gospel, but we think they simply do not have enough information so we catechise them and yet we wonder why nothing is sinking in. It is like trying to plant seeds in concrete! If we continue to prepare and form young people in this same way – only catechise – then we will continue to arrive at the same results, with young people unprepared for a life of adult faith because we never evangelised, made and formed them as disciples.

Finally, youth ministry as a process of duplicating groups. One other response to the disengagement of young adults from the Church we can see is the simple duplication of the same youth groups and structures for an older cohort. However, the question then is ‘where should that process end?’ Should we have groups for those aged 30-35 and then for those 40-45 years of age or would we presume and prepare at some stage their integration and leadership in the wider Christian community?

We can see how some of the outcomes we are seeing in youth ministry with drop off or disengagement can be shaped by our starting points or understanding of what our purpose is as a ministry of the Church. All these four models or tendencies within youth ministries miss the mark, which is to make disciples who have encountered, surrendered and made the decision of faith. More positively, if we do make disciples of young people, they will naturally yearn to be with other Christians (be social), they will live their life within the Church, even through thick and thin, because of their personal relationship and love of Jesus (they will be retained), they will be open to learning (catechesis) and be sustained as adults in older years with a genuine heart for Christ (experience spiritual conviction, not simply repeat behaviours). However, if we begin with other starting points, we cannot expect to see the fruit we are called to bring to life.

Toward Renewal

Moving forwards then, how might we make and form disciples, so they can graduate from youth groups and experience genuine personal and spiritual change that will last? Jesus invites us, through his command to Peter, “to go and bear fruit that will last” (John 15:16). As shared earlier, I think our youth ministries can create a new path and be the change and difference that our wider Church so sorely needs.

We can see the difference youth ministries can be through what are called ‘Berkana loops’ which are simply a helpful companion in thinking through how change and growth come about.

Berkana Loops

When our youth ministries first get off the ground, we can enjoy growth and excitement as the life cycle begins. Our group can be thriving, and we are good stewards of this growth. However, at some point things in the group can begin to plateau, perhaps because we have become comfortable and established, or we are not gaining new members or enthusiasm begins to wane. We start to lose significance or momentum.

When things begin to decline, we enter a ‘hospice’ stage where we are caring for a group in decline. However, as things plateau, there are some who see what is going on and what is not working, they might see what is lacking through a sort of ‘holy discontent’, and can begin to ask questions about impact or methods, and they begin to think of a new way forward. They recognise that God’s mission is greater than our existing methods which are no longer bearing fruit as they might have at other times.

These innovators might feel isolated in their hunger for a new form of engaging young people until they connect with others who have discerned a similar hunger, need or possibility. Now a network of innovators emerges, and they begin connecting on a regular basis. They begin to take action and become a community of practice, as a new possibility continues to emerge and build. With time, space, resources, expertise or by building new skills a new reality and a new way of mission or outreach comes into being.

There will be some stewards of youth ministry who are called to ‘sit by the bedside’ and accompany youth groups to their end, perhaps because that is their charism or they do not quite muster the courage or imagination to change and adapt. Sometimes youth ministries do have their time and naturally come to their end. However, others might make the transition from an old to a new way of doing things which has been led and created by others. When we recognise what is missing in our wider Church and some of our youth ministry – a focus on discipleship – we can put those missing pieces in place with the young people in our care.

Raising Discipleship

So, how do we raise discipleship among new generations that will last into adulthood? Firstly, our own witness is essential. Our witness demonstrates what a new life in Christ looks like. If our own Church attendance and involvement in the life of the Church does make a difference in how we live, if we are actively learning a style of life steered by love, it provokes a response from the young people in our care and opens a path of curiosity, trust and dialogue.

It is important to underscore that it is not our youth programs that make disciples; it is disciples that make disciples. Courses, programs and materials are only as good as the people using them. Without disciples to run a program, they do little good. It is not that we do not appreciate good materials. However, as it has been said, in the history of the life of the Church we did not have good materials. We had people. We had disciples making disciples. Right now, due to a lack of disciples, we may need the materials as a kind of crutch but we need to be careful about allowing them to replace the relationships.

Our witness enables us to then credibly proclaim the Gospel, most centrally the kerygma which is the kernel of the Gospel that centres on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The kerygma refers to the basic truths of our Christian faith, the core message of the Christian faith to which all believers are called to assent and proclaim. Pope Paul VI declared, “There is no true evangelisation if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the Kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed”.[7] This is the kerygma. It is explicit and focused entirely on the person and saving message of Jesus Christ.

We have to tell this Great Story of Jesus if it is to be known. The heart of evangelisation in youth ministry is to announce who Jesus is, the Son of God, the Word made flesh, the man who is God, who died for our sins and was raised on the third day. It is to announce the Good News of the Risen Christ who is with us even now and opens up for us the way to life without end. Evangelising youth ministries proclaim Jesus’ ascension, his seating at the right hand of the Father as King, and his sending forth of the Holy Spirit. It is this Spirit which reveals Christ and even enables us to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ and it is this Spirit who empowers the Church, who empowers us, to be faithful to Christ’s mission in our own lives and in this moment of the world’s history. Ultimately, this Good News of Christ calls us to conversion, to repent and believe in this Gospel, calling for a change of life in the light of what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ whose life we share by baptism, the anointing of the Holy Spirit, in communion with his mystical body in the Eucharist, and by our communion with His body, the Church.

We are called to bring young people to a transformational encounter with this Jesus, connecting his story with our life. Again, the power of our initial witness and then proclamation has a lot to do with our own transformation and encounter, our own conversion. Pope Francis notes, “A true missionary who never ceases to be a disciple, knows that Jesus walks with him, speaks to him, breathes with him, works with him. He senses Jesus alive with him, in the midst of his missionary enterprise… a person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain, and in love, will convince nobody”.[8] Hence, how are you telling the Great Story of Jesus in your ministry? We are called to share that Jesus’ mission was to bring about the Kingdom marked by abundance and that we, as his disciples, are called to do the same, bringing the world’s limitation to divine possibility, that is, to the fullness of life (John 10:10).

This is the kind of vision of discipleship we need to proclaim. The American author Sherry Weddell remarks that if nobody talks about what discipleship looks like, it becomes difficult for people to begin to walk on that road, “Unfortunately, most of us are not spiritual geniuses. If nobody around us ever talks about a given idea, we are no more likely to think of it spontaneously than we are to suddenly invent a new primary colour. To the extent we don’t talk explicitly with one another about discipleship, we make it very, very difficult for most Catholics to think about discipleship”.[9] It is difficult to believe in and live something that you have never heard anyone talk about or that you have seen very others, including older adults, live with joy. We must witness, tell the story of Jesus, and cast a vision of discipleship, of personal and spiritual change, as the ultimate fruit of all other gifts in the Church, including the sacraments and our ministries to the young.[10]

In casting that vision of discipleship we need to be committed and resolute because other understandings of youth ministry can be cast at us (e.g. youth ministry as the social group, the retention strategy, as catechesis or duplication). A great example of resoluteness in holding and living our vision is illustrated by SouthWest Airlines, a low-fare carrier in the U.S. that seeks to ‘democratise’ air travel. Humour is a core dimension of its vision (e.g. the on-board announcements, “Would someone put out the cat?”; “We will be serving dinner on this flight and dessert if everyone behaves themselves”). Nevertheless, the airline received a complaint about their style, from a customer who regarded it as unprofessional and improper for an airline company. On receipt of a complaint, we could probably assume the line of management that would follow (i.e. a letter comes into the central office, the director of customer service rings the branch manager and asks them to ‘tone it down’, before sending the customer some form of compensation e.g. a meal voucher or a free fare). However, Southwest Airlines did not do this. Instead, they sent this customer a short letter with just four words on it. It read: “We will miss you.” The airline does not compromise on its vision and stands by the fact that there are many other uninteresting and boring airlines that customers are well free to choose. So it is with us in our vision of discipleship – it is the very reason for which the entire Church exists, is non-negotiable, and is that image of life that will support the young to live their faith into adulthood, as they come to know themselves as witnesses to the reign or Kingdom of God.

A further step in accompaniment of the young must be to assist them to actually live in that direction. Take for example the rich young man who encounters Jesus. It is not enough for this young man to meet Jesus, but he is then invited to sell all that he has – in other words to start living in the right direction (Mk 10:17-31). We can learn this principle also from the gift of marriage. We can encounter another person, get to know them, and even develop a personal relationship with them. However, to be married someone has to make the decision to ask and a decision to say ‘yes’. It is the same for discipleship – we are called to assist young people to make decisions that set them in the right direction. After all, we are all going somewhere, whether we know it or not, and will arrive at a destination in life.

The road that we are currently on will lead to a destination, and we generally do not drift in good directions. There are physical paths that lead to predictable locations, and physical roads and physical highways that lead to predictable destinations. There is a dietary path that leads to a predictably physical destination. There are financial paths that lead to predictable financial destinations. There are relationship paths that lead to predictable relational destinations. In fact, parents often ask their children questions about who they are dating for this reason. They are not so interested in whether their child is happy in the relationship now (though they hope they are). They are more interested where that relationship will take their child, whether that relationship will take them in the right direction.

As you know for the young people in your care they can in fact be completely content and satisfied and still be heading in the wrong direction. It is akin to driving on the road. You can be perfectly content in the car but become lost and you never know the precise moment you became lost, otherwise you would not have taken that turn. You can be a hundred metres past where you need to be and by the time you realise it, it is too late. It can cost you ten minutes. In life, if you are content but headed in the wrong direction and don’t know it, it can cost you years. It is often our nature to think ‘now is now’ and ‘later is later’ but everything we do has a consequence and will be connected. Biblically speaking, we reap what we sow. All our steps lead somewhere, so what we do everyday matters more than what we do once in a while when it comes to our ultimate direction in life.

mapleleafThe poet Gerard Manly Hopkins developed this term ‘inscape’ for the individual structure of a living being (like a tree or a leaf), an inner structure which results from the history of this being, an inner design made by the tree through its life in the way it has responded to life. We are much the same, our life is a work of art and all the good and the bad, conflicts and sufferings, troubles and happiness in our life all add up to something, all produce this inner structure, and this is what we are judged on, our encounter with Jesus and the direction that we chose to live.  We are judged not on small incidentals (eating meat on Fridays) but rather the whole structure of our life – all that we wanted to do, tried to do, our relationships. This all adds up to our identity which God knows. Hence the value of youth ministers as spiritual guides who can help the next generation to be in touch with the whole direction and meaning of their life as a whole, what it is all adding up to and to encourage them to develop in this direction and not another.

We need, in fact, to develop an intentional culture of mentorship if young people are to grow and make decisions on the way to a lasting and adult faith. Why do young people need you as a mentor? Part of the reason is because experience is a rough teacher and it costs time. As shared by a Christian evangelist, Andy Stanley, ‘Perhaps you’ve heard someone make the argument that experience is the best teacher. That may be true, but that’s only half the truth. Experience is often a brutal teacher. Experience eats up your most valuable commodity: time. Learning from experience can eat up years. It can steal an entire stage of life. Experience can leave scars, inescapable memories, and regret. Sure, we all live and learn. But living and learning don’t erase regret. And regret is more than memory. It is more than cerebral. It’s emotional. Regret has the potential to create powerful emotions – emotions with the potential to drive a person right back to the behaviour that created the regret to begin with. If regret can be avoided, it should be’. Life will throw enough hardship at us by itself. We can avoid unnecessary pain and regret by learning from the experience of others. We need to reach back to those a stage of life behind us and make it easier for that next generation to encounter Christ and to live for him because people develop best when they see what their value being lived out in other Christians. We know hypocrisy discourages faith and good witness raises it up.

In creating that culture, I also want to invite youth ministers not to underestimate their capacity to be a spiritual mentor for others, regardless of their age or history. As a Carthusian monk once penned, our years of age tell us only this, “that the earth has gone around the sun so many times since I came into this world. That is the normal measure of what the world calls time.”[11] However, there is another ‘age’ which is measured by the time we have spent in the life of Christ, the spiritual growth and progress we have made in our time of faith. The mentorship of youth ministers for young people in their care honours our Christian faith as nothing less than a life being passed on, for our tradition of witness is ‘hand clasping hands stretching back in time until they hold the hand of Jesus who holds the hand of God’.[12]

The qualities youth leaders can develop as mentors to support and nourish the discipleship of the young are well spelt out by the preparatory document for the forthcoming Synod on Youth to be held in October 2018. It helpfully shares:

“The young people of the Pre-synodal Meeting accurately detail the profile of the mentor: ‘a faithful Christian who engages with the Church and the world; someone who constantly seeks holiness; is a confidant without judgement; actively listens to the needs of young people and responds in kind; is deeply loving and self-aware; acknowledges their limits and knows the joys and sorrows of the spiritual journey’. For young people, it is particularly important that mentors recognise their own humanity and fallibility: ‘Sometimes mentors are put on a pedestal, and when they fall, the devastation may impact young people’s abilities to continue to engage with the Church’. They also add that ‘mentors should not lead young people as passive followers, but walk alongside them, allowing them to be active participants in the journey. They should respect the freedom that comes with a young person’s process of discernment and equip them with tools to do so effectively. Mentors should believe wholeheartedly in a young person’s ability to participate in the life of the Church. They should nurture the seeds of faith in young people, without expecting to immediately see the fruits of the work of the Holy Spirit. This role is not and cannot be limited to priests and religious, but the laity should also be empowered to take on such a role. All such mentors should benefit from being well-formed, and engage in ongoing formation”.[13]

While it can appear that we are looking for ‘Jesus on a good day’, all of us can bring something of our imperfect selves and the treasure of our life and experiences of the world to those in our care. However, if we are going to support young people to healthily progress through youth groups and to become adult disciples, we will also need adult or older mentors in the lives of young people. As we shared, if a young person never sees or hears an adult talk about their relationship with Jesus, how would they know this relationship is even possible? As noted by Everett Fritz, we want young people to learn to participate in the world of adults, but our youth culture has largely removed adults from mentoring roles with teenagers. “As a result, teens are growing up in a peer-dominated culture. As they grow into adulthood, they have difficulty assimilating into the adult world and into the responsibilities and expectations that come with being an adult.”[14] While peer to peer ministry has its place, in clarifying our life direction, we should not only seek advice from people who share the same season of life, because it is akin to asking for directions of someone who has never been where you want to go.

We have a rich biblical tradition of older mentors investing in younger mentees including Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, Paul and Timothy and Titus, and Jesus and his disciples. Adults bring a unique blend of experiences, insights, conflict, choices, health challenges, convictions, and even failures and struggles to believe. Having adult mentors and witnesses in the midst of youth ministry, and a variety of adults, is essential if talk of discipleship and the Church is going to be meaningful in real-life ways. As it has been said, our faith is ever one generation away from its silence if it is not passed on, from one generation to the next.

Conclusion

How might we better prepare young people for adult discipleship in our age? We can begin to acknowledge the discipleship dilemma we are experiencing as a Church, seek to create and innovate a new way with others that learns from these limitations, provide a living witness to a life in Christ wholly given over and surrendered, proclaim the Great Story of Jesus, cast a vision of the discipleship he asks of us, accompany young people to live in that direction, and include mentors, both peers and adults, in the normal practice of youth ministry. I propose that it is these foundations, applied to local contexts, that can resource young people to live a Christian life beyond the confines of youth ministry, to grow into adult disciples and agents of renewal in our Church.

References:

[1] Fr Michael White and Tom Corcoran, Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter (Ave Maria Press: Notre Dame, Indiana, 2013), 77.

[2] John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae 19.

[3] Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium 59.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church #1072.

[5] Robert Dixon, Stephen Reid and Marilyn Chee, Mass Attendance in Australia: A Critical Moment. A Report Based on the National Count of Attendance, the National Church Life Survey and the Australian Census (Melbourne: ACBC Pastoral Research Office, 2013), 2-3.

[6] Cf. Sherry Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples (Our Sunday Visitor: Huntington, Indiana, 2012), 63.

[7] Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi 22.

[8] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 266.

[9] Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples, 56.

[10] A disciple can be defined as one who has encountered Jesus, surrendered their life, and made the decision to follow, or be understood by its expression as provided by Fr James Mallon, as one who has a personal relationship with Jesus, shares faith with others, is open to the gift of the Holy Spirit, has a daily prayer life, with commitment to Eucharist and Reconciliation, can pray spontaneously out loud when asked, and sees their life as a mission field. Cf. Fr James Mallon, Divine Renovation Guidebook: A Step-by-Step Manual for Transforming Your Parish (Novalis: Toronto, Ontario, 2016), 159.

[11] A Carthusian, They Speak by Silences (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1955), 38-9.

[12] John Shea, An Experience Named Spirit as cited in Robert A. Ludwig, Reconstructing Catholicism: For a New Generation (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2000), 61.

[13] Instrumentum Laboris for Synod 2018, 132.

[14] Everett Fritz, The Art of Forming Young Disciples: Why Youth Ministries Aren’t Working and What to Do About It (Sophia Institute Press: Manchester, New Hampshire, 2018), 46.

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young in christ: thoughts on synod 2018

SynodI was grateful to be part of a workshop this week hosted by the Australian Catholic Youth Council in North Sydney. It drew together a select group of parish and diocesan youth leaders in conversation with Australia’s delegates for the October Synod on youth, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP and Bishop Mark Edwards OMI, as well as Archbishop Comensoli.

It was a great source of learning and uplifting to meet young leaders who are exercising what can only be described as remarkable spiritual entrepreneurship within the Church in Australia. Amidst the polarisations that can mark our Church these are the young witnesses bringing fresh heart to our faith, with the bold humility well described by an ancient apologist – ‘we others, we speak little, but we live’.

The fifteenth ordinary general assembly will focus on young people, faith and vocational discernment between 3-28 October 2018. The Synod and its outcomes will provide a telling insight into the Church’s approach to evangelisation at this time. This is because our commitment to reach out to the young reflects our commitment to reach out to all those who are unchurched or weighing up if the Catholic faith might still be central or relevant to the everyday project of their lives.

The reality of disengagement and even disaffiliation from the Church on the part of young people will always be a confrontation as it suggests something about ourselves – about our capacity for relationships of discipleship with young people both personally and as a community of faith.

The conspicuous absence of young people from many of our communities, worshipping life and ordinary ministries says something about our ability to enter into their experience of life, to grasp their sensibilities, and recognise their questions and searching as filled with promise and as authentic, a way of approaching God rather than an affront or the hubris of disobedience. The uneven journey of young people within the Church throws light on our ability to dialogue with those unlike ourselves and on our capacity to suggest compelling and personal forms of holiness amid a host of unsatisfying cultural placebos. Fundamentally, the presence or otherwise of young people in our Christian community reflects our ability to witness to and proclaim the Gospel as a way of life, as an invitation to fall in love rather than an obligation to fall in line.

Recognising the Reality

Youth MassAs the Church in Australia considers its future, it is imperative to understand the interactions and experiences that comprise young people’s lives for these provide the building blocks for renewed mission with and to young people. While the Catholic faith may today occupy less surface space in Australian culture, the rise of dedicated disciples within promises to bring new depths to our Christian living and cultural impact, and encourage the whole Church in its mission to the concrete people of each generation.

While the national survey and report findings (‘Called to Fullness of Life and Love’) produced by the Australian Catholic bishops ahead of the Synod did tend to underrepresent young people weakly attached to the Church, and overrepresent young adults who are highly involved, it nevertheless stands as a valuable and significant window into the experience of young Australians with regards faith and the Church.

Affirmed by the survey is the primary influence on young people of family and friends. These two natural influences can nurture, support and raise up faith. Each can also lead young people toward disaffiliation. This phenomenon can occur, for instance, when young people feel forced to attend Church with family members, perceive hypocrisy in the lives of those closest to them, come forward from situations which may not mirror a Christian understanding of marriage and family (e.g. a third of all births in Australia are now ex-nuptial births[1]) or when they are not supported by peers who value faith or religious practice.

bishops_surveyChallengingly, among Australian Catholic youth the influence of Church or religious leaders in their key decisions and directions is thin, identified as significant by just 11% of those surveyed and aged between 16-18 years. This meek influence might be explained by a lack of personal relationship amongst some clergy and young people, the broader collapse of the Church’s credibility in the light of the sexual abuse crisis, and the real struggle of Church leaders to listen or ‘hold’ the questions that young people are asking of the Church. On this score, young Australian Catholics rated their experience of being listened at a modest 5.9 out of 10.[2]

A number of young people have expressed their weariness at being disregarded within our faith communities because of their youth or else being catechised without the opportunity to enter into genuine dialogue about the issues of faith and belief that are significant to them. It is certainly true that when the Church appears more concerned with behaviour modification than a personal encounter with the young in Christ, our ecclesial influence will wane and the potential for accompaniment will give way to alienation.

The reason that our influence – and therefore our listening – matters a great deal is because young Catholics are actively deciding whether faith and the Church will be a part of their life and future, and they are making these decisions from early adolescence. Disaffiliation is not a choice that is made with haste. As it has been suggested, it often mirrors the breakdown of any significant relationship – it happens one ‘chip’ at a time until one partner has had enough and ultimately decides it is ‘done’.[3] Provocations toward a final decision against the Church or Catholic faith can include a struggle with or disagreement with a particular Church teaching or teachings, a negative interaction with a Church leader or faith community, a process of steady emancipation from parents or grandparents committed to practice, and the accumulation of uninspired or wearisome experiences of the Church over time. Hence, the reported sense of relief for young people when they leave.[4]

Embracing the total picture of the reality of young people vis-à-vis the Church also means acknowledging those who remain engaged with the life and mission of the Church, of whom diversity remains a mark. Some young adults in the Australian survey passionately engage with traditional Catholic expressions of prayer and liturgy. Some want clarity of Church teaching amidst confusion and the cacophony of the blogosphere, while others seek less catechesis and dogmatism and more personal concern. Others shared their negative experiences when they have tried to promote Church teaching and practice in their own schools and parishes, and a lack of effective support in their practice of parish ministry, while others expressed their difficulty with the Church’s understanding of sexuality and relationships.[5]

Given the range of influences on young people, within and outside the Church, and their mixed experiences of faith, there is no one answer for the complexity of these situations, at least not without doing violence to the personal condition and circumstance of each young person which is the very subject of our evangelising mission.

Vocational Discernment

yobrek_021Positively, when Australian youth were asked how the Church can be of help to them, the responses actively invited our communities to provide guidance, to assist and counsel young people in their anxieties, personal challenges, understanding of sexuality and relationship issues.[6] As the meaning and direction of life is not uncovered in a single moment, it is incumbent upon the Church to journey with young lives in realising their own dignity and personal mission, both of which express a fundamental call to holiness.

The Synod’s preparatory document acknowledges that condescension and judgement are not helpful in this project. It also insists that mutual encounter rather than one-sided prescription will be the way in which we discover a personal form of holy living, “No vocation, especially within the Church, can be placed outside [the] outgoing dynamism of dialogue”.[7] This is because our vocational horizon is not “a pre-determined fate, a task to be carried out, a ready-made script . . . God takes seriously the freedom He has given to human beings and responding to his call is a commitment that requires work, imagination, audacity, willingness to make progress also by trial and error”.[8] Accompaniment and an apprenticeship in the life of faith are essential to growth in holiness, pursued by a state of life and also in professional life.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis has already advised “The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life”.[9] Accompaniment demands patience but can be sustained with the assurance that it has an immediate purpose, “To accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father . . .  Genuine spiritual accompaniment always begins and flourishes in the context of service to the mission of evangelisation.”[10]

Picture4Frustratingly for many, the accompaniment urgently desired by young Australian Catholics and urged by Pope Francis cannot be found neatly contained within a package or program. It demands in fact an entire culture of ecclesial life in which discernment is a norm and in regular evidence. When genuine discernment is not practiced in our sacramental programs, leading to fruitless reception, when RCIA processes teach people about Catholicism but neglect to train them to live as disciples, when parish pastoral councils and parish groups are more focused on ‘who will do it?’ rather than ‘where are we going?’, the offer of accompaniment to young people will appear more like false advertising than the expression of a community fully open to what God wants for the Church. The preparatory document for the Synod minces no words, “We cannot expect our offer of pastoral accompaniment towards vocational discernment to be credible to young people, unless we show that we are able to practice discernment in the ordinary life of the Church”.[1]

Conclusion

If disaffiliation from Catholic faith and the Church is a process that unfolds over time, and the reasons that people leave contain the reasons they might return, then we must commit ourselves to the patient and thoroughgoing work of creating cultures in which accompaniment is not reserved for a select few or the ‘super spiritual’ but is the ordinary experience of young people in their contact with the Church.

As set out in the preparations for the Synod, it will demand of our communities mature disciples who are faithful Christians engaged with the Church and the wider world, who constantly seek holiness, can be a confidant without judgement, who actively listen to needs and respond in kind, are deeply loving and self-aware, and who can acknowledge their own limits and know the joy and sorrows of the spiritual journey.[12] In confronting the challenges and listening to the hopes of the young, we pray that the October Synod will prompt this depth of conversion in each of us as witnesses to God’s mission.

 

[1] Australian Institute of Family Studies, Snapshots of Family Relationships 2008.

[2] Dantis, Trudy and Reid, Stephen, Called to Fullness of Life and Love: National Report on the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Youth Survey 2017 (Pastoral Research Office, 2018), 30.

[3] McCarty, Robert J., and Vitek, John M. Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics (2017), 11.

[4] Ibid., 27.

[5] Dantis and Reid, 34-36.

[6] Dantis and Reid, 41.

[7] Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod 2018, 140.

[8] Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod 2018, 121.

[9] Evangelii Gaudium 169.

[10] Evangelii Gaudium 170;173.

[11] Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod 2018, 139.

[12] Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod 2018, 132.

synod on the family 2014

synod2The Extraordinary Synod on the Family concluded over the weekend in Rome (5-19 October, 2014), bookended by the beatification of Pope Paul VI. It proved to be an eventful, even enthralling journey for the Church, two weeks of discussion, passionate debate and prayerful discernment about the way in which the Church can best bring the Gospel to bear on the lives of millions of families as diverse as they are complex.

Given the multidimensions of family life, the issues canvassed by the bishops and participants were also broad. They included the plight of refugees, the care of children with special needs, the situation of migrant workers and the unemployed, the impact of the internet on family bonds, and then there were the distinctive concerns of African bishops whose concerns differ in striking ways from those in the affluent West (e.g. the practice of polygamy and conditions of extreme poverty).

However, and perhaps inevitably, the focus of media and popular attention ultimately fell on two specific matters: the question of Eucharist for the divorced and remarried, and the Church’s pastoral response to homosexual persons.

Controversies of the Synod

synod3As the first synod of bishops to meet under the leadership of Pope Francis, and affirming as it did many diverse views on the way in which Catholic faith speaks to human lives, the synod attracted not only generous media coverage for a Catholic get-together but wide-ranging interpretations of what was said, by whom and for what intent.

Of course, the synod discussions were pre-empted and almost overshadowed by Cardinal Kasper of Germany who in February 2014 advocated for access to communion for Catholics who have divorced and remarried. This was followed by a strong critique of his position by several other cardinals, including in the book-length reply, The Gospel of the Family, which contained a foreword by our own Australian prelate Cardinal Pell (the text of the Cardinal’s introduction is available here).

(For those interested in the pre-history of the synod, preparations began in earnest in November 2013, with a survey distributed by national bishops’ conferences to glean the opinions of Catholics on a number of Church teachings. The survey was a commendable initiative and expressed a sincere desire to be consultative though it clearly suffered from limitations, including the formulation of the questions which could be difficult for the Catholic in the street to say the least e.g. ‘How is the theory and practice of natural law in the union between man and woman challenged in light of the formation of a family?’ This survey was followed in June 2014 by the lineamenta or preparatory document for the Synod which presented the results of the November consultation and set a platform for the synod discussions to begin in earnest).

midtermreportAs the synod officially got underway this month, one of the major causes of controversy was the mid-term or post-discussion report known as the relatio post disceptationem. This was intended as a provisional snapshot of the views of the bishops thus far. However, many bishops objected to the content of this summary, noting that it was not only insufficiently grounded in Scripture and Catholic tradition but that it seemed to present the views of one or two particular bishops as the consensus of the whole assembly, which they were not.

The most strident and vocal objector to this interim report was the American cardinal Raymond Burke who argued, ‘[this document], in fact, advances positions which many Synod Fathers do not accept and, I would say, as faithful shepherds of the flock cannot accept’. Controversially, the interim report had included praise for the ‘positive aspects’ of what the Church has long considered ‘irregular’ situations, including civil unions and cohabitation, and even spoke of ‘accepting and valuing’ people of homosexual orientation  (though with the notable disclaimer ‘without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony’).

Criticism was particularly focused on the General Secretariat of the Synod which handled the information flowing out of the bishops’ discussion, with accusations that its members, including Cardinal Baldisseri, had manipulated, or at the very least swayed considerably, the content of the relatio to reflect a personal and permissive agenda.

Interpretations of the Synod

synod4As is customary, and was the case following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the major media outlets interpreted the discussions and debates of the bishops through a political lens, with reports of ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ camps pitted one against the other (of course, Pope Francis was read as ensconced within the latter and undermined by the former, taken to be the majority).

Without denying the political nature of all human discourse, including the ordinary desire to influence outcomes and press one’s case, the heart of a synod is not the political motivations that underlie the bishops’ views but the theological arguments that are raised in accounting for those positions. Of course, the media is generally not interested in actual arguments, only assertions, and for the most part lack a theological background or concern.

In cherry-picking lines from the disputed interim report we have mentioned, as well as Pope Francis’ powerful concluding address to the Synod Fathers, the Daily Mail and even the BBC were able to run histrionic headlines such as “Massive Vatican shift on gay sex” and “Pope Francis set back on gay policy”.

The BBC coverage focused on Francis’ critique of ‘hostile inflexibility’ among so-called traditionalists and intellectuals, and implied that these adversarial forces had undermined or ‘setback’ the Pope’s more ‘progressive’ agenda on homosexuals and the remarried. Conspicuously, the report made no mention whatsoever of the pontiff’s critique in the self-same address of those who have ‘come down from the cross’ to ‘bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God’ (you can read the complete address here).

More locally, broadcasters tapped into the local response to the synod, including SBS which while perpetuating the BBC caricature of a Pope Francis opposed by backward bishops, at least tried to seek out a Catholic view of things.

sbsIn my fifteen seconds in the spotlight, I shared the view that the synod represents a healthy and vital discussion for the global Catholic Church and that the Catholic bishops are mindful of the lived situations of people from across the world and mindful also of what the Gospel can bring to those contexts. I tried to underscore that the range of issues being discussed by the synod as they relate to the family were broad and that the synod represents the Church’s ongoing and sincere discernment of how best to accompany people in their life journeys, including divorcees, the civilly remarried, single parents, and gays and lesbians to whom the Gospel also speaks. (Other voices in the report included Paul Collins who can always be relied upon to express more than a healthy scepticism about Church matters).

Discernment is Not Division

The key to an interpretation of the synod and its events is given to us, I think, in Pope Francis’ closing address to the Synod Fathers which is a profound and striking statement (you can read it here). He provides us with ‘the eyes of faith’ to continue talking about these issues with confidence.

Firstly, Pope Francis is not at all unnerved by the differing views expressed in the preceding fortnight and accepts the rigorous debates in faith as an expression of the Church discerning how to enter ever more deeply into the heart of the Gospel by the sensus fidei, the sense of faith of the faithful. As he shared,

Many commentators . . . have imagined they see a disputatious Church where one part is against the other, doubting even the Holy Spirit, the true promoter and guarantor of the unity and harmony of the Church – the Holy Spirit who throughout history has always guided the barque, through her ministers, even when the sea was rough and choppy, and the ministers unfaithful and sinners.

9954008What Francis is affirming by valuing debate over the silence of ‘a false and quietist peace’ is the capacity of the Church to receive God’s revelation faithfully and meaningfully by attending, together as people of faith in the Spirit, to tradition, including the teachings of the Magisterium, and the experience of Christian families in the world (I have written about the Church’s discernment of the Spirit here, in relation to the 2013 papal conclave).

To teach and evangelise the Church must first listen, receive time and again the deposit of faith which constitutes our living tradition and attend to the complex realities of contemporary family life which too can be a source of theological knowing.

The guarantor of the Church’s ongoing faithfulness to Christ in this multidimensional process is the Holy Spirit, as Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium affirms and which Pope Francis cited in as many words,

The universal body of the faithful who have received the anointing of the holy one cannot err in matters of belief. It displays this particular quality through a supernatural sense of the faith in the whole people when ‘from the bishops to the last of the faithful laity’, it expresses the consent of all in matters of faith and morals (Lumen Gentium 12).

This discernment of the sensus fidei, a sense of the faith and the Church’s sense for the faith, should not be a ‘source of confusion and discord’, as Francis remarked in his address, but should be entered into with confidence, trust and utmost faith in the Holy Spirit’s capacity, through diverse and even imperfect people (like you and me) to lead God’s people to the truth and mercy of God (you can read more about this connection between the deepening of tradition and the divine assistance of the Holy Spirit in Dei Verbum 8 as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church n.892).

As well, in the process of spiritual discernment that will continue until the General Synod on the family in 2015, Francis warns of temptations or polarities. The first temptation is to be fossilised in our faith, exhibiting a ‘hostile inflexibility’ which would in fact impede the ability of the Church to bring the Gospel to new and developing circumstances. This kind of fundamentalism or rigorism can manifest a lack of faith and trust in the Spirit that guides the Church (the Marian dogmas of the 19th and 20th centuries standout as instances in which the Church has developed a deeper appreciation of her own faith). ‘Traditionalism’ is in fact not traditional at all for the pilgrim Catholic Church understands development as a perennial and necessary deepening of her self-understanding in light of the Gospel, and never a departure from it (“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life”; John 6:68)

Christ Mosaic Cefalu Sicily 12th CenturyThe other risk named by Francis, the one that media outlets were less enthusiastic to report, was the capitulation or accommodation of the Church, and the Gospel it bears, to ‘a worldly spirit instead of purifying [the world] and bending it to the spirit of God’.

The Church must engage the world, as Francis has so often stressed, but it engages the world and contemporary culture with a view of what the world really is in Christ, a world of men and women made in the image of God and called to conversion or ‘likeness’ in Christ in whom we find our origin and destiny. Thus, Pope Francis critiques outright in his concluding address,

a destructive tendency to do-gooding, which in the name of a false mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them, that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots

with the phrase ‘false mercy’ a nod to no less than St John Paul II. What does Francis mean by this? He means that we cannot truly serve people in their wounds and in their growth through crisis if we disregard the truth, if we cover over the truth with superficial or cheap dressings. As American Archbishop Kurtz put it, ‘Mercy without truth is not mercy’.

While the concrete solutions to the contemporary challenges that confront the family will be the subject of discussion over the next twelve months, the synodal process has already recalled two principles for our view of Church and mission. The first, that all people are called to Christ and the Church – as all are called to the King’s banquet in the parable of Matthew 22 – and second, that all people are called to conversion in Christ who is the source of true life  – as was the guest at the banquet called to change before approaching the table. The Church must both open wide its arms to the sinner and invite a new creation in each one of us, no matter what our state of life or circumstances may be. This is the universal hope and universal challenge of the Gospel.

Much more will be said on family and life issues in the coming year, by each of the local churches (dioceses), episcopal conferences and the observing media. As Catholics, we are being invited by Pope Francis explicitly and the debates of the synod implicitly to trust in the Spirit-filled capacity of the whole Church, all of us together, to know what the faith is and to better accompany all people in their journeys with the promise and joy of the Gospel.

 

getting started in ministry

planningLast week I met with a diocesan youth minister who was seeking advice on planning for parish communities and better coordinating their activities toward a unified mission. For me it was an opportunity to learn more about the organisation of other dioceses and their parishes which differ quite considerably across the country.

One of the recommendations that I made was that whether you are working within the context of a parish ministry, a religious order, or for a diocese it is essential to put aside some specific time for planning rather than jumping headfirst into frenetic activity.

Gregory of Nyssa, the fourth century Cappadocian Father, warned that the mere appearance of Christian activity and practice does not mean any genuine progress is being made. He likened directionless activity to

. . . those who toil endlessly as they climb uphill in sand. Even though they take long steps, their footing in the sand always slips downhill, so that, although there is much motion, no progress results from it. (The Life of Moses)

Genuine progress demands beginning on firm ground, including the effort to plan, otherwise we risk expending a lot of energy in ministries that make little progress or have little impact. As it has been put, without proper planning, direction and goals, we can be ‘paying people to be nice’.

Here are a few pointers which may be helpful for those just beginning in ministry as well as those further along in experience. These can assist both lay and ordained ministers to make the most of their opportunities and reduce the amount of energy lost to initiatives that are uncoordinated or ill-conceived from the start:

  • windowUnderstand the ecclesial context, history and organisational structure. One of the first things I did, and found helpful, was to request an organisational map of the diocese before all else. One of the advantages of working within the Catholic Church is that there will be a relatively firm structure, that is for sure! A map of these structures and relevant organisations within your diocese, parish, or religious network will help you identify who the stakeholders are, to identify those who link with your work and help you to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes! It is also important to quickly become familiar with the history of the context you are working in. This helps you understand people’s attitudes, opinions and actions in the present. All of this takes time, though after a year or so you should be picking up the ‘lay of the land’. If you don’t have a clear picture of the ecclesial landscape and dynamics you are working in it can be difficult to make genuine progress. After all, you can’t do it alone and need to collaborate with others.
  • Ensure ownership of your ministry by those you report to, as well as the provision of adequate resources to fulfil your ministry. This includes the need for your own ongoing formation. Accountability and governance are not only important dimensions of the Church as a human organisation but a part of the Church’s self-understanding as a theological reality. The Church is structured in such a way as to not only safeguard but to strengthen an apostolic proclamation from generation to generation. This means that those you report to, often an ordained minister, a vicar, a head of a religious institute or perhaps even a bishop, need to exercise oversight and take ownership of the work you have undertaken. Sometimes a helpful distinction is made between ‘responsibility’ and ‘accountability’ – you may be responsible for a particular work but someone ‘higher up the chain’ will be ultimately accountable for it. So regular meetings with your superior are a must. Your overseer also has responsibilities and they should support you not only in rhetoric but also in practical resources. All church organisations should be resourcing their people to succeed, not to fail, so it is important to ask for a budget that allows you to get the job done. If they could have done it for less or without expense, they would not have employed you in the first place! Finally, securing resources for your ministry also means ensuring you are not working in isolation and that you have opportunities to network with others and receive formation and/or supervision of some kind. Working in the Church means working with people and there is nothing more rewarding and challenging than that. Good supervision, networking with others and ongoing formation are essential for your longevity as a leader.
  • Establish a coherent framework for your ministry. Take youth ministry in a diocese for example. Is your ministry going to be parish-based, diocesan events-based, or a combination of these and in what proportion? No one can ‘do it all’ so what will your approach be, your principle message for young people, and what are the three goals you seek to achieve in the first year? Clarifying these basic goals and approaches to your ministry are important. It strikes me that in speaking of a ‘framework’ for your ministry those who take up an existing role often feel an expectation to simply duplicate what was before. However, again, if what had gone before was so successful or sustainable, it is doubtful that your predecessor would have moved on or that the organisation would have employed you to take it up. Once you familiarise yourself with the context and history, have the courage to begin to shape the goals that you discern as critical to the life of your community. You, also, need to own the work if you are to carry it out not only with competence but personal passion.
  • Build a reliable team throughout the planning process yet still assert leadership. As I’ve mentioned before, often Church organisations have strategic plans that no one really cares about other than its authors. No one else feels invested in the plan and so few are likely to respond to its initiatives. When you start out in your ministry, start collecting names and remembering profiles of good people with a proven record for getting things done. Remember, these may not be the people recommended to you by predecessors or the people currently in place! Ask the skilled and capable people you have identified for their views as you plan for your ministry. Not only are you getting wise advice from a gifted cohort but they may also form a future team that can help you turn the vision of your ministry into a reality. By having their say, people become genuine owners of a plan and you are on your way to building and nurturing a reliable team. Keep in mind this does not mean handing everything over to committee – it remains important to lead from the front and it is indeed an old saying that ‘if you want to kill something off send it to committee’. Work towards a style of leadership that is genuinely consultative but is unafraid to make decisions and exercise leadership when called for.

There are many other dimensions of good planning in ministry and while few of us, including myself, manage to apply or appropriate them all, it is helpful to have them before us as a resource for future thinking.

greatgrace2013For those interested in further reflection on ministry, especially since the Second Vatican Council, the Sydney Archdiocese is hosting the “Great Grace” conference next month. It is well worth attending if you can. I’ll be there speaking on the subject of “co-responsibility” and you can read my abstract and those of others here.

As the landscape of ministry develops across our Church, I will be suggesting that it is indeed possible to affirm the integrity of ministry by the non-ordained and uphold the unique charism of the ordained without compromise or a diminishment of either. As so often happens in the Church, the practice of co-responsibility is outpacing the theology and Church policy in this area. Yet this does not necessarily mean a distortion is taking place. In fact, it can herald development that is authentic to our tradition, including our self-understanding as a ‘communion’.

I hope to share more reports on the Conference and reflections on ministry in posts to come.

the Spirit of the conclave

With the collegeofcardinalsconclave set to begin tomorrow (12 March), it is worth reflecting on one of the underlying themes of these past weeks, or one of the ‘issues under the issues’ as the historian John W. O’Malley would put it.

The  issue is the role of the Holy Spirit in the life and renewal of the Church. Of course, following Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication, it is the Spirit’s guidance of the Church in the election of a new pontiff that is at the heart of our prayer at present and for good reason.

As a religious and political institution, the papacy has shaped and re-shaped human history in innumerable ways both positive and notorious (compare the papacy of Gregory the Great in the sixth century and his historic mission to the people of Anglo-Saxon England, worshipping as they were ‘stocks and stones at the edge of the world’ to that of Benedict IX in the eleventh century whose election, the result of systematic bribery on the part of his father, brought only violence, debauchery and shame to the See of Peter).

This uneven history of the papacy and its influence on both the Church and world underlines the importance of the upcoming conclave and the Spirit-led discernment that calls to be exercised by the cardinalate.

The new pontiff will not only need to meet the challenge of the sexual abuse crisis, a scandal that continues to raze the credibility and mission of the Church globally, but also the plight of persecuted Christians in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, the yet-incomplete articulation and direction of ‘the new evangelisation’ aimed principally at the West, and the abiding issues of internal reform, including that of the Roman Curia, that call for address.

While it would be comforting and reassuring to assume that the Spirit’s direction will, and has been, a full triumph in the Church, history has told us otherwise. Indeed, on the subject of papal elections, the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made the following, now widely-publicised, remarks on the influence of the Spirit on such an occasion:

I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined . . .

The Cardinal went on to conclude with stark realism,

There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked!

Erroneous decisions on the part of the Church, certainly not restricted to the realm of candidates for the Petrine Office, raise the question of the precise nature of the Spirit’s role in ecclesial discernment and decision-making for while Scripture affirms that the Spirit will indeed ‘guide us into all the truth’ (Jn 16:13) it ostensibly does not offer the community of disciples immunity from mediocrity or even calamity.

NTChurchCertainly, in the Acts of the Apostles the Spirit does appear to intervene at chosen moments in an immediate and decisive manner, leading the nascent Church towards what it should be and what it should do. For instance, we witness the power of the Spirit at Pentecost to bring about a reconciled diversity among Jesus’ disciples and later it is the Spirit who guides the Church into an embrace of the Gentiles, a decision which the apostles and elders attest as having ‘seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ (Acts 15:28). For Luke, the author of Acts, the power of the Spirit is at work, guiding and directing the early Church to its destination.

However, other New Testament texts, the dramatic history of the Church and our own personal experience suggest that the voice of the Spirit is not always so clear. The diverse manifestations of the Spirit as expressed in the New Testament communities (1 Cor. 12:28-31, Eph. 4:11-13, Rom. 12:6-8), while a profound gift to the Church, indubitably shape the later Johannine emphasis on the need of discernment to ensure that what has been received, experienced or testified is indeed truly of God. The First Letter of John, clearly acquainted with the experience of community discord, warns, ‘Beloved, do not believe every spirit but test the spirits . . . from this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error’ (1 John 4:1,6).

rubleviconIndeed, it is ironic that the subject of the Spirit, which ecumenical theology affirms as the principal of unity within the Church, has been at the root of some of the most significant divisions in the history of Christianity – the split of the East and West over the Spirit’s procession from the Father and/or the Son, and the Spirit’s relation to Scripture, tradition, and the sacraments including hierarchical ministry so bitterly contested at the Reformation.

What we can draw from this mixed history and the necessity of the Spirit’s discernment is that the gift of the Spirit – in all of its ‘elasticity’ as Cardinal Ratzinger puts it – does not so overwhelm the Christian that it alleviates or excuses them of the responsibility to evaluate, reflect and decide in faith but rather invites and even necessitates their active participation in that process of decision. This much is clear from the story of the primitive Church as described above (to open the Gospel of Christ to the Gentiles or to restrict proclamation of the Messiah to the House of Israel?)

In other words, the gift of the Spirit needs to be actively and constantly received by the community of the Church as it pilgrims through history, a ‘reception’ that involves the activities of listening, understanding, applying, and so truly ‘making one’s own’ the Spirit of faith and grace so that the community can be faithful to the person and message of Jesus.

The necessity of active human involvement in the Spirit-led decisions of the Church explains not only the emphasis of our tradition on being ‘docile’ to the Spirit (a spiritual tenet emphasised by Benedict XVI himself in his farewell address to the College of Cardinals) but also opens the real possibility for the non-reception of the Spirit by the Church community. This failure to heed the Spirit is evidenced not only in the grand crises and scandals of the past and recent history of the Church but also in the more ‘ordinary’, everyday failing of Christians to live the full meaning of their God-given discipleship.

The Australian theologian Ormond Rush concludes of the Church and the Spirit, ‘the human receivers of revelation are to be portrayed as active participants in discerning the way forward, co-deciders with God’s Spirit’ (cf. Rush, Still Interpreting Vatican II, 87). This ‘co-decision’ with God’s Spirit is a capacity and responsibility not simply of those who exercise authority in the Church but for the whole ecclesial body which shares the task of receiving the one Spirit, the ‘Spirit of Christ’ himself (Rom. 8:9), into its life, structures and decision-making.

CardinalsReturning to the impending conclave, though the abiding presence of the Spirit in the Church is that which ensures the Church a future as the ‘pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (1 Tim. 3:15), it remains the task of the cardinal-electors, as individuals and as a college, to be open and receptive of the Spirit’s promptings in selecting ‘the first among the successors of the apostles’ to guide the Church into this future.

As for each and every Christian, what is essential to the cardinal’s reception of the Spirit is their own conversion for it is only in holiness that one can recognise the Spirit who is holy. There can be, then, no naïve self-complacency about those Spirit-led decisions which shape our life of faith, whether they are made in the splendour of the Sistine Chapel or the more familiar surrounds of our own dioceses and parishes with their own intimate concerns and hopes for the future. It is only our conversion that enables authentic discernment, a faithful recognition, of the Spirit of Truth as it calls us to respond. As the 14th century theologian Gregory of Sinai concludes, ‘the understanding of truth is given to those who have become participants in the truth – who have tasted it through living.’ We pray that the cardinal-electors will choose well and in good faith.